JAMES CUSHING, born 1953 in Palo Alto, CA, holds a doctorate in English from UC Irvine. In the early 1980s, he hosted a live poetry radio program on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles which gave early exposure to Dennis Cooper, David Trinidad, Amy Gerstler, Wanda Coleman, Leland Hickman, and many others. Since 1989, he has taught literature and creative writing at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and served as the community’s Poet Laureate for 2008 – 2010. His poems have appeared in many journals, and Cahuenga Press has published five collections: You and the Night and the Music (1991), The Length of an Afternoon (1999), Undercurrent Blues (2004), Pinocchio’s Revolution (2010), and The Magicians’ Union (2014). Cushing currently hosts weekly a jazz program on KEBF-FM, 97.3 “The Rock” in Morro Bay (www.esterobayradio.org) His daughter is the New York-based poet Iris Cushing.
Jazz at its height was a cultural movement influencing in particular the language, dress and attitude of youth, and it originated among immigrants, the lower classes, and African Americans. What if any possibilities do you see for it as a tool of resistance today?
The description of jazz in the question actually fits hip-hop very well today, and I would point to that genre as one that has the most immediate leverage in terms of Fighting the Powers that Be. Hip-hop gives immigrants, workers, and African Americans a public voice literally and figuratively. The relation of jazz to hip-hop is complex and evolving, and there will be more and more fruitful blends of hip-hop (a producer’s medium) and jazz (an improvisor’s) as the century goes on. Kamasi Washington is doing interesting things along these lines.
Poets like jazz musicians have often improvised on the spot. Poet Andrew Levy views improvisation as less an act of spontaneity and more “a form of hearing and thinking, making measure in the familiarity of one’s attention.” Do you agree? And perhaps in counterpoint to the previous question, how important is the cultivation of silence to the poet? To poetry?
As far as what improvisation is and does, I’m not sure I understand what Andrew Levy means by 'the familiarity of one’s attention,' although it’s a lovely phrase! Improvisation in music is most definitely a matter of hearing and thinking; another way to say that is, active listening. I find painting offers useful metaphors: when I played improvised music with my trio (20 years ago), I felt as though the notes or phrases I played were a kind of color I was adding to a canvas the other two were creating. But that experience was the opposite of 'familiarity,' so I’m not totally on board with Levy’s idea, unless I just don’t get it.
As for the importance of silence and the cultivation of it to the poet, again, I feel some disconnection involving familiar words meaning different things to different people. Silence, like the color black, is complex; it can be negative ('silence = death'), positive ('ECM—the most beautiful sound next to silence'), calming ('let’s begin the service with a moment of silence'), controversial (John Cage’s '4:33'), or any of those things at once. Sometimes I find silence helpful in my writing, but sometimes I find it oppressive, and need to put on some music to give shape to the atmosphere (I’m shuffling a 5CD deck of Charles Lloyd with Bobo Stenson on ECM as I write this, and I wrote two poems earlier with the music on). I’ve written in quiet and noisy environments over the years, and have found no master pattern.
How important is silence to poetry? For Emily Dickinson, silence was a crucial element in the gestation of her work; for Walt Whitman, it was the opposite of important, as he sounded his barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the hectic world.
Collaboration can expand possibilities for poets, musicians and artists while enriching the arts. What can you say about it from your own experience/perspective?
Jazz musicians are lucky in that collaboration is essentially a requirement for their art. The solitude of the literary artist, a great theme in Beckett, is to me a mixed blessing, given that I was an only child with an extraverted nature. My consolation for much of my life has been that reading is itself an abstract but nonetheless real collaboration between an author and a (usually unknown) reader who gives life and breath to the sentences. Since meeting poet/painter Celeste Goyer in 2014, I have been writing poems in collaboration with her, and the experience has been uniquely pleasing, both as an unprecedented experience of mental and (if I may speak so) spiritual intimacy with a partner, and as a creative thrill that allows me to participate in the building of poems that take genuinely surprising directions. In this way, I feel that I’m freeing my poetry from the limitations of my own ego and personal identity without giving up any place in the fabric of the whole.